FISHING FOR FLAGS
On graduating from flight school in July 1967 I was assigned to the 199th RAC, diagnosis an O-1 unit operating in the Delta of Viet Nam. The standard procedure was to assign one or two pilots and aircraft to each province to provide aviation support as needed by the Province Chief/Senior Military Advisor.
The thought was that by having the pilot fly in one designated area daily he would become much better at recognizing movements and buildups that may otherwise go unnoticed. This setup allowed the pilot much leeway in setting the tempo and manner in which he went about his daily routine. I took advantage of this to flex my new wings and investigate some new techniques in bringing this war to a successful conclusion.
My area covered the Northwest corner of the Delta bordered on the South by the Mekong River and by Cambodia on the West. The area included the Plain of Reeds which was a large flat area covered by reeds, flooded in the wet season and powder dry in the dry season. The area was crisscrossed by canals, with many of the larger ones lined with trees. There were several small Special Forces outposts spread through out the area. They were isolated and ran patrols frequently to keep tabs on the Viet Cong. The VC were always attempting to show the locals they were the one that ruled and used various methods to reinforce this thought. One way was to place small VC flags in the tops of trees so they could be seen by one and all. Another method was to string propaganda banners across canals with procommunist messages for all to see as they traveled up and down the waterways.
My first attempt to counteract their propaganda was to tackle the flag problem. I saw that as being the easiest and probably the most profitable one. The flags would make good trading material. My first attempt to take them down was to contact a resupply helicopter working in my area and asked if they would be interested in capturing some flags. They were all for it so off we went to a tree I had previously spotted which had a large flag standing tall in the very top The pilot made several attempts to retrieve the flag by hovering above it and having the Crew Chief reach out and pluck it. Due to rotor wash and position they could not reach it. I was told later that the VC had been know to booby trap the flags so that pulling on it set off a shape charge. Once the word spread about this I found it hard to get any Helicopters to volunteer for my flag mission. Having failed in capturing any flags I turned my attention to the banners in the canals, they may not trade very well but would look good hanging in my hooch.
. On a previous mission I had provide air cover for a patrol working out of one of the Special Forces camps. As the patrol passed a VC banner stretched across a canal I asked the patrol leader to check as to how it was secured. He assured me that it was being held by a small wire and could be pulled loose or broken easily. My plan was taking shape. In camp we had a small workshop that handled small repair jobs around the compound. I showed them what I needed in the form of a long rod with two or three prongs on the end like a fishhook. While they made the hook I rounded up a 75 to 100 foot length of cotton rope. Thank god it was cotton and not manila. One banner coming right up…
I came up with a plan where my buddy would fly while I rode in the back seat operating my fishing line. We realized that the VC would probably react quickly to our operation once we started. To prevent being ambushed we decided we would only troll one day, only one attempt per target, and not try any two that were close together
We took off on our first mission, but a problem became apparent as I dangled the hook out the back window it did not have the vertical drop we needed. We were hoping to keep the plane at least fifty feet off the ground to provide some maneuvering room. The slip stream made it difficult to get much vertical drop on the line. I found that by running the line through the pull ring on a smoke grenade this would allow the grenade to slide down the rope to the hook adding more weight to counter the slip stream effect on the line. After connecting three smoke grenades I decided that the approximate 30 ft vertical drop on the rope was the best we could hope for. So the show must go on.
Our first target was a small canal out in the open with no obstructions and a small banner stretching from bank to bank. Our run in looked good but the hook did not connect. OK, on to target number two. I wondered what Mr. Charlie thought as he watched the O-1 flying along dragging 100 feet of line with a grappling hook on the end of it. Our second target was on a much larger canal with its banks lined with tall trees. This did not look good because we would have to be at or below tree top level in order to made a connection. Anxious to make this work and realizing time was critical we decided to make a supreme effort on this one attempt.
Because we missed the first banner by being to high we set up for a longer run down the canal so as to get the altitude right prior to crossing the target. I checked my grip on the rope making sure it was wrapper several time around my hand so as not to lose it. Looking out the back window I directed the pilot lower and lower until I could see the hook skipping on the water. I glanced out to the side and saw the canal bank at eye level with trees well above us. If Charley was there we would be sitting ducks. My eyes were glued to the hook skipping along in the water when the pilot told me we passed over the target. I leaned back in the seat and tightened my grip on the rope waiting for the contact. There was one hell of a jerk I was slammed against the side of the cabin and thought my hand was gone. I looked behind and could see the broken end of the rope dangling in the breeze. Was it a cable or barbed wire they used to secure the banner? I know for sure it was not what the patrol leader found holding the one he examined. As we made a Max climbout I slowly unwound the rope from my hand hoping my fingers would not come off with the glove. My hand was numb and my arm felt like it had been pulled out of its socket.
As we flew home I mulled over what had happened and thought you cannot win them all and any way I had other plans in the works to take the war to the enemy. What about those Navy 2.75 Aerial Rocket pods I had scrounged off the Navy in Vin Long. They held 10 to 14 rockets per tube and I could carry one per side. With a setup like that I could provide all the TAC Air support the Province would need. The rocket pod setup worked but that is another story. I did get a banner after all. The patrol leader kept the one they had examined and was able to deliver it to me later. I was as proud as a new Papa of my banner, but I still had a taste for those flags.